Soul. It’s an abstract concept that can be hard to define. But you don’t have to be in Havana for long to know the Cuban capital has it in outrageous quantities. Part of this comes from the look – in equal parts beautiful and decaying. Befinned 1950s Chevrolets roam the streets, while colonial architectural bequests of various styles are in turn lovingly restored and left to crumble. The lack of familiar chain names and absence of advertising billboards strikes home, too.
But it’s more about the character than the look. Communist policies enacted since the 1959 revolution, plus the United States trade embargo, have left Cubans poor but provided for. Health and education are excellent, but luxuries are thin on the ground. Even finding basic supplies in the shops can be a tough ask.
Yet that doesn’t seem to matter when ambling through the streets of the old town, live music coming from every restaurant and spontaneous dancing breaking out. There’s a strong sense of being somewhere very – and compellingly – different.
A comfortable bed
The Iberostar Parque Central (www.iberostar.com; 0053 7 860 6627) is split across two buildings, one "colonial" and the other "modern", but the former has the most lavish lobby. The location at the edge of the old town is perfect, and each building has a much-needed swimming pool on the roof. The rooms aren't as impressive as the common areas, but that's not an unusual trait in Havana hotels. Double rooms cost from €150 (Dh632) per night.
For atmospherics, the Hotel Nacional (www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com; 0053 7 836 3564) in the Vedado area is king. It was formerly an old mafia haunt, and its downstairs is lined with photos of singers, Hollywood stars and world leaders who have stayed there. Again, though, the rooms could perhaps do with a refurb. Doubles cost from 196 Cuban convertible pesos (Dh719).
For something a little more quirky but right in the heart of the old town action, try the Hotel los Frailes (www.hotellosfrailescuba.com; 0053 7 862 9383). The staff dress up as monks, and there's a more European-vintage-style to the rooms, which cost from €63 (Dh264).
Find your feet
Begin at the former Presidential Palace, which is now the Museo de la Revolucion. In places, it does a good job of charting Cuba’s history before and after the revolution. In other places, it’s so tedious on policies enacted by the Castro regime that it becomes oddly hilarious, while seeing the CIA blamed for everything bad that has ever happened in Cuba becomes increasingly entertaining.
After that, take a stroll around the old town from square to square – Plaza Vieja is the prettiest and best-restored. Such an amble works best if you’re quite happy getting lost, however. Handsome mansions, old churches and highly niche little museums are there to be stumbled on rather than specifically tracked down.
Meet the locals
The Malecon is Havana’s take on a Middle Eastern Corniche, and it stretches along the bay, acting as a meeting point and party venue for thousands of locals. By day, it’s for joggers and strollers, though.
Book a table
Most restaurants are state-owned and tend to be fairly mediocre, so it’s worth tracking down the privately owned affairs – known as paladars.
In the old town, the Paladar los Mercaderes (207 Mercaderes; 0053 7 861 2437) is one of the stars, with palace-like high ceilings, excellent service and unusually feisty dishes, such as the 17 convertible pesos (Dh62) spicy seafood stew.
Café Laurent (257 Calle M; 0053 7 831 2090) is hidden at the top of an apartment building in Vedado, but it’s worth finding. It serves up beautifully seasoned lamb stews for 14 convertible pesos (Dh51) and a chateaubriand for 30 convertible pesos (Dh110).
Unsurprisingly, Havana isn’t particularly renowned as a shopping destination. Calle Obispo in the old town tries its best, though, with a few local boutiques and plenty of souvenirs. Expect lots of fairly generic paintings and wood carvings.
All the book stalls around the nearby Plaza de Armas are more atmospheric. The books on sale tend towards the old and revolutionary in spirit.
What to avoid
Cuba has many idiosyncrasies, and Wi-Fi access is one of them – it’s exceptionally limited. Even if you’d usually web research things on the hoof, it’s a country where going without a good guidebook is a poor decision.
Cuba must have the most ingenious mechanics in the world. The combo of the US embargo and the cost of importing new European or Japanese cars means many of the vehicles on the roads have been going since before the revolution. These vintage cars are both delightfully photogenic and great fun to pootle around in. Urban Adventures (www.urbanadventures.com; 0053 5 347 5803) offers tour of the city sights in one from US$52 (Dh191).
KLM (www.klm.com; 04 602 5444) offers flights to from Dubai to Havana via Amsterdam from Dh6,665.